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Great Technical Writing: Sell Your Readers On What's Important


Our humdrum, sterile headings and writing manner do little to encourage our Users to read parts of the product documentation that would be especially beneficial for them. This article presents two real-world examples, how they fail their users, and how to correct the problems.

Not the Legal & Disclaimers

Although the Legal and Disclaimer sections of your documentation are important for the protection of your company (and protection of your company should be a primary goal in your work), this is not what we are talking about here. Instead, we are discussing the Document topics that are often overlooked, but are important to your Users.

We will look at two examples where the Document writer should push the Reader to investigate additional material. My suggestion is to "advertise" the topics, by using tempting writing, to urge the User to read the relevant topics.

A Rule of (Writing) Life

If a User knows one way to do something, he/she is hesitant to bother learning about other ways. You, as a Document writer, have to sell the Reader on the benefits of the "other" (better) way.

Example: Microsoft Word (tm) Styles

Most power users of Microsoft Word (tm) use "styles," rather than manual formatting, to format their documents. New and casual Users do not know about this powerful tool (available in most word processors ). Word's User Documentation does little to encourage the User to learn about styles.

The Word's User Document talks about manually formatting characters, paragraphs, etc. Later in the document there is a section on "styles." But why should the User ever read that section? Styles seem to be just another way of formatting characters, paragraphs, etc. The formatting section just told them how to do this.

Power Users know that for anything longer than a few page letter, styles provide many benefits.

Documenter: Sell the Reader on important topics! Encourage your User to read the additional material. Microsoft should have added something like this at the end of the section on manual formatting:

"We recommend that you use 'styles' to format any documents longer than a few page letter. See Chapter XX to learn about styles."

Example: Gas Barbecue Safe Shut Down

A Gas Barbecue User Document headline says: "How to Shut Off Your Barbecue."

The Reader Thinks: "I know how to do this," and doesn't read the material.

If your Users are doing things unsafely or incorrectly then that bland headline will do nothing to help them correct their ways. Let's try a more convincing headline for this:

"Most People Shut Off Their Barbecues Unsafely: Here's the Correct Way"

Or even more focused:

"You Probably Shut Off Your Barbecue Unsafely: Here's the Correct Way"

This wording sounds like you are selling a product to the User. But you are not. You are using marketing techniques to get Users to read important material.

By the way: If you have a gas barbecue, compare how the instructions tell you to shut it off, versus how you actually shut the barbeque off.

"See Also" is too Bland

Don't fall into the trap of simply adding "See Also" sections where relevant. These are OK for telling the Reader where to find additional information, but do nothing to convince your Reader to read important additional material. If the material is of real benefit to the Reader then sell them on reading it. Compare these:

. See Also: Styles, Chapter XX

. We recommend that you use "styles" to format any documents longer than a few page letter. See Chapter XX to learn about styles.

If you were reading the User Document, which of the above two headings would get you to learn about styles? (If you gave the 'wrong' answer, then ask some other people;-)

The Bottom Line

By selling the Reader on what you (or your subject matter experts) consider important (beyond the legal and disclaimer statements) you are adding your knowledge to the document. In effect, you are saying, "I think you should read this topic because it may help you." That's a good thing to say, especially because it reflects your good attitude to your Reader.

About the Author: Barry Millman, Ph.D., has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering (1966, Carnegie Institute of Technology) and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Psychology (Human Information Processing, University of Calgary). He has been a consultant for over 25 years, an instructor, course developer, and award-winning speaker. For the past seven years he has been researching and creating resources to help organizations create great User Documents.

Visit: for resources to help you create the content and access that your Users want and need. Visit for more articles like this one.

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